Day 18 – November 20
This morning we woke up early to meet with Ann in the Holy Cross neighborhood for a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward led by Darryl Malek Wiley. When we arrived at Holy Cross, we went straight to the top of the Mississippi River levee that acts as an earthen wall around the neighborhood separating it from the water below. As we took our seats on the side of the levee we took out our notebooks and began our note-taking as we listened to Darryl Malek Wiley. Darryl is the Sierra Club Environmental Justice Coordinator for the state of Louisiana. He is also the co-originator of the term “Cancer Alley” – a term that we have become very familiar with in our travels and that denotes the corridor of polluting industrial plants that line the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. He has worked for over 30 years with communities along the Mississippi River to fight toxic pollution and protect peoples’ health. After Katrina, he has been very active in working with community groups to build capacity for recovery.
Darryl explained to us about Mr. GO. During Katrina, The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (Mr. GO), built by the Army Corps of Engineers for navigation, acted as a funnel for storm surge which overtopped and eventually broke the Industrial St. Canal and flooded the Lower Ninth Ward and adjacent areas. After Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers was forced to close the outlet. Just within the last couple of days, a judge has held the Army Corps of Engineers responsible for damages from Mr. GO, including rebuilding homes and coastal restoration. Although most believe the case will be appealed and move up through the judicial system, many groups who have been working for the closure of Mr. GO were very happy to see the decision.
The second stop was at the Global Green USA Holy Cross Project. Global Green USA is an organization that has built 5 homes in the Holy Cross neighborhood that are all LEED platinum certified. These houses were built for people that have been displaced from their homes. The homes have solar panels that are tied into the grid system which lowers power bills, dual flushing toilets, rooftop gardens, rain water collection systems, and non off-gassing paints, glues and carpets.
Next we got into the vans and went down to St. Claude Corridor, an area that is a high priority to be rebuilt because it is a central street through the Lower Ninth. There was an old Walgreens on the street that the Episcopal Church has taken over and uses as a safe space for afterschool and weekend programs for children. Next we drove by the Martin Luther King elementary school. This was a public school before Katrina, but a decision was made to not clean or re-open it. Neighborhood residents broke into the school and cleaned it up deciding that if the state would not clean it, they would. The school was re-opened as a charter school. Many of the schools in New Orleans that used to be public are now private or charter schools. We also stopped by the School at Blair Grocery again to see the facility that provides opportunities for high school students to get their GEDs and learn about sustainable farming and how to tend to the earth. Seeing community projects, religious efforts, and individual desire to help children and families come back and succeed while the city is being rebuilt is a moving experience.
The last stop that we made with Darryl was at Bayou Bienvenue where we saw a planting project by students from the University of Wisconsin. Bayou Bienvenue used to be a cypress-tupelo swamp but now, because of the flow of water into the bayou, it has turned to open water. Just one acre of cypress swamps can lower storm surge by one foot, so it’s easy to see why rebuilding these cypress-tupelo swamps is so important. Students from the University of Wisconsin have planted several floating mats of marsh grass and are monitoring their growth until they can hopefully be used to plant new cypress trees. While this would only be a small project it would be a good model because of its close proximity to the city of New Orleans and because it would be useful in protecting the Lower Ninth Ward.
Next we went to the “Make it Right” neighborhood which is where our very busy tour guide Darryl had to part with us. “Make it Right” is the group that has been working with Brad Pitt to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward in a sustainable way. “Make It Right” had architects from all over the world design homes for lots in the Lower Ninth Ward, and then people got to pick the home design that they wanted to be built on their old property. Residents pay for the new houses, but the homes have been made affordable by donors and special loan arrangements.
While walking around the neighborhood of new homes we met Robert Green, a resident of the neighborhood, who invited us into his home for a tour. Mr. Green, who tragically lost his mother and granddaughter during the Katrina levee failure in his neighborhood, explained all of the advancements in his new home that made it LEED Platinum, while we stood on his driveway in a neighborhood that still looks very much like a construction zone. The contrast of all of the empty lots and abandoned buildings around the rest of the Lower Ninth Ward with this neighborhood was unbelievable. Mr. Green was the last person that we spoke to as a group in New Orleans and he was a perfect conclusion to our week. While all of us could only see the destruction and how far there still is to go to fix everything, he saw the progress and the improvements to his neighborhood. As Ann had explained to us the day before, we need to see that the glass is half full, not that it is half empty. He was one of the most optimistic and inspiring people that we came across on our trip. Despite the loss that he has experienced, he can still see the gain and the recovery and the improvements that are going on, instead of focusing only on what is yet to be done. It was the perfect end to our morning.
We went to Ben’s Pizza for lunch where we wrapped up the day, shared our thoughts, perceptions and experiences from the service projects yesterday, and said goodbye to Ann. The rest of the day was spent shopping for gifts and taking in as much of the French Quarter as we could in our last night in New Orleans.
Up next: 3 days in the vans as we make our trek back up north to a place without cypress swamps and too filled with sweater weather.